“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Flick Lit # 29: Thieves Like Us / They Live By Night

“One of the great forgotten novels of the ’30s,” claimed Ray Chandler. Taking its cue from the social realism of John Steinbeck’s dustbowl sagas and utilising the spare, hard-boiled rhythms of Hemingway and Hammett, Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us (1937) is a masterclass in social critique. Anderson took to the road to research his debut novel, Hungry Men, which chronicled the plight of the transients and hobos who travelled the trains during the Depression of the ’30s, and his experience had not noticeably diminished his compassion for a disenfranchised, alienated underclass by the time he came to write Thieves Like Us. Hungry Men won the Doubleday Story prize in 1935 and Anderson used the prize money to travel to Texas, where he interviewed his cousin, then a convicted bank robber serving time in Huntsville State Penitentiary. Taking the contemporary exploits of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker as his starting point, the author recounts the exploits of the young jail-breaker Bowie and his lover Keechie as they twist and turn in a doomed attempt to escape the law, their criminal background and the potentially lethal suspicions of society at large. What made the Depression of the 1930s different to others America had experienced was the mobility of the ravaged underclass: Bowie and Keechie’s battle to establish a life worth living was not a new story to proletarian America, but their cross-country flight and dogged determination to stay one step ahead of the law suggested that it was possible to escape the ties that bind. The Promised Land beckoned, and all a man needed was a tank full of gas and one even break. The latter proved elusive. To hammer home the point, Nicholas Ray’s film They Live By Night (1948) boasts an even more brooding title than that of Anderson’s novel. Even as they flee the system that grinds them down, Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) are condemned to a nocturnal, claustrophobic existence in the shadows of civilised society. But They Live By Night differs from the conventional noir tales of greed, lust and cool amorality in the way Ray emphasises the compassion that lay at the heart of Anderson’s novel. Bowie and Keechie may be on the wrong side of the law, no-hopers doomed to failure, but their instincts towards one another, their devotion and mutual tenderness, set them apart from the usual suspects of back-stabbing double crossers. Permeated with a sweetness that resists sentimentality, the film celebrates the naivety and grace of two kids trying to come to terms with a world that is harsher than their worst nightmares prepared them for. Their two-dollar wedding, in a strange, uncaring city, represents a travesty of the hope woven into all marriage vows, and the heart aches.- Michael McGowan

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